There seem to be two distinct flavors of Stephen King film adaptations. Either it's a full-on scare-the-dickens-out-of-you night at the movies or it's the journey to the center of the insane mind. "1408" falls into the latter category, yet a large percentage of the middle act wants to play by the now familiar rules of suspense cinema. It's a confusing mix, but then again, "1408" is a difficult movie to decipher.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a non-fiction novelist specializing in the haunted attractions of America. Urged to try spending the night at the Dolphin Hotel in the cursed room 1408, it takes everything the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson, in a five-minute cameo) has to try and convince Enslin to change his plans. The author won't budge, and embarks on a stay that will challenge his skeptical nature, forcing Enslin to confront a torturous past with his deceased daughter and a lifetime of disbelief.
Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom made a dent on the American film scene with the 2005 thriller, "Derailed." A nicely detailed piece of trash, "Derailed" couldn't help but fall apart in the final reel, so it comes as little surprise that "1408" also suffers the same fate.
Adapted from a King short story, "1408" has to fill a 90+ minute running time with a concept that should rightfully take up about 30 minutes. However, Hafstrom is skilled at the build up to the hotel room sequences; giving the audience a nice feel of Enslin's testy personality before he's subjected to a barrage of nightmares.
It's takes a good half hour before we even get into the dreaded hotel room, and once it arrives, there's really nowhere for "1408" to effectively go. This is an origami-paper-thin concept about psychological confinement, and the screenplay works up a summer-day-20k sweat trying to fill the narrative with bits of character dimension and generic suspense. The director is actually able to breathe some life into the majority of the picture, drizzling on the required bits of evil and alarm; but he's punishing Enslin for sins the audience surely won't be invested in.
What "1408" has in might and ghostly bits of paranoia, it lacks in basic genre entertainment value. Hafstrom and his production work extra hard to smuggle in a psychosomatic depth that gives Cusack something to play with and the film more meat to chew on besides a one-note haunting. At first, it keeps the film honest, but once the picture goes haywire in the room, stretch marks on the character arc become a burden and feel unnecessary to the whole endeavor. The element of Enslin's dead child is a prime example of an idea that must've looks smashing on paper, but acts more like a speed bump in the finished film. Hafstrom can't balance the requirement of excitement with the necessity of depth without jerking the film's pace around like a bad carnival ride.
"1408" works best as a haunted work of fury, pushing Enslin to the limits of PG-13 madness as he tries to escape the room. Never have the Carpenters been as menacing, mini-bars as terrifying, and Cusack as professionally unhinged. I greatly enjoyed the film when it stuck a specific dance card and let 'er rip. Yet, "1408" is searching for a special brew of cohesion; a glue that Hafstrom is certain will make the end of this tale stick more dramatically. I wish I shared his confidence.
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